By John A. W. Moyes
Privately published, 2019
Hbk, 252 pages; many colour and black-and-white photographs and illustrations
ISBN 978-1-910693-61-2; £40.00
Created in 1874, Wisbech Sewage Farm became, in its later years, famous for the number and variety of birds it attracted, particularly waders. The importance of the site, which lay on the Norfolk/Lincolnshire border just south of the Wash, can be illustrated most clearly by its astonishing single-day counts of up to 650 Curlew Sandpipers Calidris ferruginea and 130 Little Stints C. minuta as well as a procession of rare waders including Stilt C. himantopus and Semipalmated Sandpipers C. pusillaand no fewer than 50 Pectoral Sandpipers C. melanotos.
This book presents an account of the site’s ornithological history, focusing on the author’s observations there, which stretch from 1954 until the farm’s demise in 1985. It comprises a series of historical maps, an introduction to the site, a systematic bird list, a series of annual count tables and annual reviews and an appendix of cuttings and correspondence. These sections contain a wealth of information and provide ample testament to the author’s long and intimate association with the farm and its birds. The book features a number of photographs and is illustrated by the author’s own artwork. The quality of both is variable (and the layout is somewhat basic, resembling a personal scrapbook) but some of the sketches and paintings are delightful. I was particularly taken with the cover painting of Common Shelducks Tadorna tadorna and, inside, some lovely drawings of Green Sandpipers Tringa ochropus and Black Terns Chlidonias niger.
So far so good but, unfortunately, the text is beset by problems. Most importantly, it is badly let down by the standard of English. Grammar is notable mainly by its absence. Non-sentences abound, making this a laborious and frustrating read, while spelling mistakes (including people’s names) are rife and the use of punctuation, capitals and italics is entirely random and frequently incorrect.
These problems are exacerbated in the systematic list where the taxonomy used is both obsolete and obscure. For example, Rock Anthus petrosus and Water Pipits A. spinoletta are afforded separate treatments but the latter is described in the text as a subspecies of the former. The list’s nomenclature is similarly muddled with some strange English names (e.g. ‘Golden Eye’ and ‘Lesser Yellow Legs’), a peculiar use of the definite article in a couple of cases (‘The Dotterel’ Charadrius morinellusand ‘The Ring Ouzel’ Turdus torquatus) and, here and elsewhere in the text, a number of misspelled species names.
The systematic list does not include scientific names but these typically accompany the photo and artwork captions. Unfortunately, these are also routinely misspelled and one or two (notably ‘Capela galinego’ for Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago and ‘Plautus alle’ for Little Auk Alle alle) are puzzling. The meaning of the caption to a painting of a Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata – ‘Exercise to illustrate the numenius form Curlews probably (tenuirostris) immature female’ – can only be guessed at.
As for the systematic list content, it is not made clear which records are accepted by the relevant authorities and which are not. We therefore have a mix of accepted records (e.g. Stilt Calidris himantopus and Semipalmated Sandpipers C. pusilla) among a host of other records, some submitted but not accepted, and others that have not been submitted (including Least Sandpiper C. minutilla, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper C. acuminata, Baillon’s Crake Porzana pusilla and no fewer than ten Great Snipes G. media). Confidence is certainly undermined by the inclusion amongst them of a claim of a Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides (described as in ‘winter plumage’) on 23rd November 1958 and the assertion that (referring to Little Stints) ‘Some birds not conforming to any of the usual plumage patterns… have also occurred… and were probably Red Necked Stints (Calidris ruficolis) [sic].’
A particular negative for this reviewer is the recurring undercurrent of criticism of other birdwatchers, either for allegedly misidentifying birds or for submitting records to BBRC ‘to boost their own egos’. Most of the derogatory comments are aimed at unnamed observers but poor Ian Wallace is singled out for a ‘rather ill-informed article’. Such point-scoring is unforgivable in a book of this nature and merely reflects poorly on the author.
This book is therefore an interesting but essentially personal account of the birds of Wisbech Sewage Farm. The author’s knowledge of the site and its birds is not in doubt. However, the translation of this experience into a book has proved problematic, the complete absence of any editorial oversight has ensured that it is neither a definitive nor even a competent avifauna.